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Chimpanzee at sanctuary in South Africa

Environment & Wildlife, From the Field

Chimpanzees highly at risk from Covid-19

May 20th 2020

Tagged: Covid-19, Primate research, South Africa, Wildlife Rescue

Not far from South Africa’s Kruger National Park, where antelope roam free and tourists regularly seek out the Big Five to immortalise through their camera lenses, lies the 1000 hectare Umhloti Nature Reserve. In this vast reserve, 23.8ha been made a home and haven for chimpanzees, safe from the potential of poaching and the harsh reality of becoming bush meat. The Jane Goodall Chimpanzee Sanctuary project, is the first, and only, chimpanzee sanctuary in South Africa, set up in 2006 as part of her pioneering work and research. 

Chimp walking through grass in South AfricaVolunteer with Chimpanzees | Jane Goodall Sanctuary | WorkingAbroadHome to primates displaced from their natural habitats through the illegal pet market, orphaned and abandoned, as well as rescued from being traumatised for ‘entertainment’ in circuses, beach resorts and night clubs. The Jane Goodall Chimpanzee Sanctuary project has created conservation-centred community education alongside a safe place for humanities nearest relatives to live in semi-wild enclosures with the ability to interact as part of family groups, with all the physical and emotional security that provides. 

Chimpanzee and human genomes share 99% of the same DNA, and this world class institute provides not only a healthy habitat for chimpanzee rehabilitation and homing but, equally importantly, research and conservation efforts to better support and understand our nearest ‘cousins’.

Isolation Anxiety

Being stuck in isolation as a result of lockdown is tough for everyone. The staff are suffering from their inability to move at will and the lack of opportunity to see friends and family. The Sanctuary is currently running on a skeleton staff of 7, half the usual number who manage the day-to-day management of the site, and the care of the animals. 

Alongside the issues of protocol and travel during South Africa’s lockdown, it is impossible for the sanctuary to ‘swap out’ staff members. The risk that they might have come into contact with the disease and be unwitting ‘carriers’ is too great. The exact implications of a chimpanzee catching Covid-19 are currently unknown, but it is a safe prediction that, knowing that catching a common cold can be fatal for these primates, Covid-19 is equally likely to kill them.

This is creating an enormous amount of pressure on the staff that remain on site and leading to high levels of both physical and emotional fatigue. Burn out is a very real issue at this time, with emotions running high alongside the ever present threat of Covid-19 to loved ones and the wider community.

Dealing with personal anxiety is a current global predicament for most but Pauline, the Sanctuary General Manager, is having to juggle her personal fears for herself and her loved ones with those for the future of both chimpanzees and staff she has known for a very long time. 

“About 95% of our income comes from tourism -our tours, café, and merchandise- plus our volunteers contributions. We have been closed since 18th March 2020 [and] tourism falls into the very last sector which will be allowed to open under lockdown protocols. [There are] rumours that tourism will be in lockdown until the end of this calendar year [and] even then, it is likely [we] will remain closed for a while to assess the [possible] impact on us and the expected spike in Covid-19 cases once the restrictions are removed.” Pauline’s concern regarding opening, even when the restrictions are lifted, is understandable. To open prematurely could be disastrous for their Covid-19 vulnerable inhabitants.”

In addition to the concerns she has for the people and animals currently in her care, she is acutely aware of the situation the staff she has sent home are facing. In some countries staff unable to work have been furloughed or are receiving some level of compensation from their employers. Here it is simply not possible. 

“What is especially trying is that while the suburban dwellers are mostly sticking to the regulations (because it is easier for us to do so), the townships are living as normal except that a lot of them are prevented from earning a living. The staff at home without an income all live in impoverished neighbourhoods where, because of circumstances, lock down protocols are lax.  

Self isolation and social distancing in a shack with an entire family in one room, without electricity or running water in a lot of cases [is impossible]. There are a lot of relief schemes set up, but they require the beneficiaries to queue to receive [them]. They also need to apply for various aid schemes but without the internet etc [it is impossible] to apply for them remotely.”

Mother and baby chimpanzees in South AfricaVolunteer with Chimpanzees | Jane Goodall Sanctuary | WorkingAbroadThe money that the sanctuary currently has is being stretched to its limit for essential day-to-day running costs like rent, security, electric, water, and salaries for the attendant staff. Food and supplements for the chimps, and food for the staff in lockdown, as well as petrol for the site vehicle, and the necessary sanitation supplies all need to be bought. There is no money for anything or anyone else, in spite of Pauline’s frantic wishes to be able to continue to fund her staff.

Staff who have been temporarily let-go are in an impossible position. The Sanctuary has no infrastructure to allow them to come back and isolate for a period before starting work again. Transitional quarantine to maintain the health of the chimps is simply not a possibility and minus the job and this income there are numerous families being put in an untenable financial position.

Giving Faith, Hope and Resilience for Chimpanzees

For the Sanctuary, their pre-Covid-19 running entailed the anxiety that most months their tourism turnover barely covered their overheads and they maintained a permanent dependence and reliance on donations to cover the shortfall. It is often the way that the majority of small environmental and conservation projects manage, and unfortunate and precarious as that situation previously appeared, it now looks decidedly preferable to the current status quo.

For Pauline and her staff, the immediate future seems as bleak as their current lockdown. With no way to finance their Project in an ongoing way, it feels as if their family is about to be ripped apart. Financial and emotional resilience are two things in currently short supply, and the only way to halt this, just as social distancing can help the spread of the current pandemic, is through the help and hope that volunteers and donors can provide. Offering a view of a life beyond this current situation, where the chimps are able to forage and interact freely again in their ‘semi-wild’ enclosures under the managed gaze of visitors and volunteers, is the best cure for their malady.

Written by WorkingAbroad blog writer, Rae Hadley


To make a donation to any of our project partners, please click here to donate under PayPal – and remember to write in your reference which project you would like the donation to be given to. It should be the project name so e.g. the Jane Goodall project, SA. Or donate directly to the institute here.

Hopefully we will know soon whether the volunteer season will open again in 2020. However, if you are able to join the project as a volunteer in 2021, then we would love to see your application! The volunteer project runs throughout the year, and we have made volunteer dates available all the way till August 2021. You can find more info via the project page and if you are ready to join already, you can fill in the online application form by clicking on APPLY NOW. 

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